Starcraft II: The making of an e-sport

GDC 2011: Blizzard lead designer Dustin Browder discusses design decisions for the popular RTS that were made on behalf of professional gaming.


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Who was there: Released in 1998, the original Starcraft seemed to only grow in popularity in the decade leading up to Starcraft II's debut in 2010. The game's adoption by the e-sports community primarily fueled this popularity, and in a session titled "The Game Design of Starcraft II: Designing an E-Sport," Blizzard's Dustin Browder laid out the ways in which Starcraft II was designed from the beginning for competitive gaming.

Even Tychus' big personality was a product of making Starcraft II e-sports friendly.
Even Tychus' big personality was a product of making Starcraft II e-sports friendly.

What he talked about: Browder began his session by emphasizing that Starcraft II's development was heavily impacted by Blizzard's decision to cater to the e-sport community. For example, he said, e-sports answers such as questions as "Why do we only have a handful of units?" or "Why go with a comic book storyline?" or even the continued support of a Zergling rush, (which he called "famously the most imbalanced thing ever in video games").

Going back to when Starcraft II development began in 2005, Browder said he was a recently hired senior designer at Blizzard, and one of the first things they did was look at the competition. They noticed that Dawn of War had more than 60 units and four sides, and that Supreme Commander had more than 100 units and four sides.

However, Blizzard decided that it would be best if Starcraft II only had 45 units and three sides, which Browder thought was ridiculous, considering it was less content than the studio's competitors. As his thinking went, units offered more choice, and more choice offered more gameplay, and more gameplay equals more fun. However, they told him not to worry, as Starcraft II was being designed for the e-sport community.

His initial reaction, he said, was e-sport? That weird thing in Korea? A) Who cares about e-sports? and B) How is that fun? As to the question of who cares, Browder emphasized that the e-sport community is incredibly passionate, just as much as traditional sports communities. Further, the community is actually quite large, with some e-sports leagues estimating global figures to be in the millions.

So what are some of the key elements for designing an e-sports game? The first is, obviously, that it has to be watchable, which Browder said is just as important as playability.

OK then, so what goes into making watchability? Browder said that one of the most important things is that it has to be clear. Clarity, he said, is the reason why artists hate e-sports. He showed concept art of a the mighty ultralisk, with a to-scale Protoss zealot in the corner of the picture the size of the behemoth's toenail. However, in the game, the ultralisk has to be tiny because players need to be able to see clearly what's happening onscreen.

Clarity also hits special effects. While the graphic artists could, for example, create lightning effects that light up the screen, for the sake of watchability, the electrotechnics must be contained to only the units being affected by them.

Moving to simplicity, he said, this is the area that designers hate because of the limitations on their work. First, there can't be too many units because it would leave the professional gamers guessing too much. Part of the fun, he said, is building counters to the opponent's strategy, in addition to anticipating which counter will be needed. He also likened unit limits to football and the limited number of positions and roles on the field.

Browder noted that despite the unit limitations, Starcraft II still incorporates significant choice and complexity. These choices are come by the way units move and fight, as well as their stats, area-of-effect capabilities, and upgrades. For instance, Banelings are the effective counter to marines. However, if the marines have the stim upgrade, then they can easily defeat the Banelings. This is true until the Banelings get their own upgrades, which flips the relationship again.

Skill is the next component of the equation, and Browder said this facet is why new players hate e-sports. In the real-time strategy genre, micromanagement has become synonymous with a dirty word, but Blizzard believes it should be embraced because of the skill differentiation it affords. He also noted that micromanagement is incredibly entertaining to watch and instills a large degree of drama into battles, as well as degrees of success.

One example here is the force field ability of Protoss Sentries. At is basic level, the force field can be used to block a ramp up to a base. A more advanced use would be to erect several to form a wall around an attacking or defending force on an open battlefield. An even more advanced strategy would be to cut an enemy's army in half with several well-placed force fields.

Lastly, he said the uncertainty component that fuels watchability is one thing that everyone hates. However, uncertainty creates a good deal of excitement because anything can change without a moment's notice. Taking the example of a Zergling rush, Browder said that he's made games where they tried to delay the fast action, but it just ends up slowing the game down and taking longer for things to get interesting.

All of these decisions have a ripple effect through the rest of the game, he said. For instance, because units such as the Protoss mothership must necessarily be small in-game, they create intensive cutscenes for the single-player story mode featuring these units. That way, when players see them in a real scenario, they'll have an idea in their mind's eye of what they're actually looking at.

The same goes for character development in the game. Because units are the equivalent of ants in-game, they use the story mode to give important characters, such as Tychus, larger-than-life personalities. That way, when they are seen on a map, Blizzard hopes players will have more of a connection with that unit and will care if that unit lives or dies.

Quote: "Let's build this crazy thing."--Dustin Browder, on his initial reaction to building a game designed for e-sports.

Takeaway: Starcraft II stands out from other RTS games due to its emphasis on competitive gaming, where watchability is as important to gameplay. Watchability necessitates a number of design choices that are easily observable in the game, including a clear playfield and limited number of units. Also, whereas many games seek to combine the haves and have-nots when it comes to player skill, Blizzard embraces those differences to ultimately create a more exciting and dramatic experience.

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